Belfast Bath Time

Malt and Cod Liver Oil does not seem to have been a feature of many people’s childhoods, but it was a big, sticky boke-inducing part of mine.  In Belfast in the early 1960s, we were served a heaped spoonful on Saturday nights. My mother sat on the closed seat of the toilet and spooned it into us after bathtime as we stood trapped and shivering in the bathroom, wrapped in towels. I hated the taste of it and the way the foul-tasting treacle stuck to the roof of my mouth and in between my teeth. Perhaps there was no benefit to the tonic other than to ensure we all cleaned our teeth thoroughly at least once a week?

dettol-01We had a bath on a Saturday night in order to be clean for church the next morning. My mother put a pour of Dettol in the water to kill any germs.  Since the three of us were often bathed together, and only once a week, this was probably just as well.  After the malt and a brisk toweling (these were pre-Bounce days and towels were dried to Pita Chip stiffness either on the line or over a clothes horse by a bar heater) the Cackler and I sat around in brushed nylon nighties having our hair done. My brother wore our hand-me-down pyjamas, the cuffs already chewed for his convenience. I don’t think his hair was tortured in any way. He might even  have been allowed to go to bed with it wet. After the Dettol and the Malt and Cod Liver Oil it was obvious no cold could catch him.

As our hair was pinned and brushed and curled, the Cackler and I were tested on the words of the hymn or bible reading we needed to know for Sunday school the next morning. If the Eurovision song contest or Miss World was on, we got to stay up to see it, lying in sleeping bags on the living room floor until Katie Boyle and Michael Aspel bade all of us goodnight.

Earlier on Saturday evenings we had French toast for tea, with Lyle’s Golden Syrup. We ate it in the living room while we watched Daktari. When you think about it, between the Malted Molasses and the syrup its amazing our teeth aren’t black stumps.

 

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Barbara Sheehan, late of Belfast 8: my childhood best friend

We were both bossy, Barbara Sheehan and I. We made sure one of us was always elected leader of the many clubs we founded. We issued frequent orders to her little brother and my younger siblings, a surprising number of which they followed. We both liked long words (Barbara invented “irraphumpinating” which meant a mix of irritating and frustrating. It is still a word I use). We both had red hair. We were best friends from the time we could talk. Barbara lived three doors down from me and on the other side of the road. Her house was certainly the first one I was allowed to visit by myself. I remember her always-tidy bedroom with its orange eiderdown, and how she used to lay out the clothes she would pack weeks before she went on vacation, and the time she got up early to Tippex out all the rude verses on a tween valentine so she could show it to her parents. Barbara was a good daughter, a good student and liked order in a way that I did not. My parents were always happy if they knew Barbara was involved in any activity because she was perceived as sensible and intelligent. My father invited her to join us on holidays in France when I was a teenager and at my most intractable. Her mother baked an enormous chocolate cake which traveled the Loire Valley with us in a giant Tupperware container. We had a sliver every night after dinner, eager to ensure the cake would last the distance.  Barbara’s mother also made bacon pinwheels she served at Barbara’s birthday parties. These involved cooked bacon crumbled on to a slab of puff pastry which was then rolled into a fat tube and cut in thin circles for baking. I can taste those puffy, buttery, bacony discs still. Barbara had things I was denied as a small child–a bike, a tortoise and glamorous sounding holidays on the Isle of Man. Her Grandfather in Greenisland planted an apple tree for her when she was born and so in the fall she had a ready supply of Coxes Orange Pippins from her own tree by Belfast Lough. Her Aunt and Uncle who had no children of their own always sent her color postcards from their holidays. My sister has reminded me that Barbara had her own portable record player, on which we used to listen to the Archies singing Sugar Sugar over and over. I envied all of this.

When we were small children, I thought we had the same talents: reading books and running things. By the time we grew a little older it became clear that Barbara, while excellent at English, was really a scientist. She got good grades in Biology, Chemistry and Physics at A level and went on to Queens to study microbiology while I, bottom of the class in all these subjects, gladly gave them up at the end of 3rd form. In our early teens, we watched Top of the Pops together sitting on her living room carpet. Rod Stewart was number one with Sailing. Barbara and I both loved him and couldn’t understand why her mum thought he was ugly. We sang along to the Rubettes and Sugar Baby Love.  Barbara had a beautiful voice. She took up choral singing and joined the church Gang Show while I discovered the allure of boys and bars. Barbara developed a weird and terrible rash that seemed to be brought on by the sun and exacerbated by stress. For her it was important to have peace, routine and certainty. She was always immaculate, curling her long, straight red hair every morning with tongs and able to wear white jackets and to sport tights without ladders. I favored risk and “wash and go” and bare-legged rackety adventure and so we gradually drew apart. When I was at University she, a couple of years older, was already a graduate and one of Thatcher’s unemployed. Barbara would visit me and we established a new, adult friendship with heart to hearts about the worry of parents and the trouble with men. She got a job at a hospital lab in Leeds and, at the time when HIV was first rampaging across the world, tested blood samples for this and many other terrible diseases to see if people had what she called “wee nasties”.

I last saw her in the middle of the 1980s when we were both in our late twenties. She was sharing a house with 3 other women and saving to buy her own. She visited her parents in Scarborough at the weekends (they retired there). She was in the middle of a complicated relationship but otherwise her life was a model of order in a sea of calm. I was in constant motion then and so we lost touch. I hadn’t thought of her for decades but had a dream about her last week. I Googled her and found out that Barbara died last year. It seems odd to mourn and to miss someone I haven’t seen for twenty-five years, but I do, I really do.

 

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Growing old digitally

My birthday was marked in a way that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago: 78 greetings via Facebook; one ecard; an email; a what’s app message; and two text messages. I also received a parcel via Amazon, and an old-fashioned phonecall. I didn’t bother to check the mail box. In Itchy Ankle things followed a more traditional path. Peggoty and Barkis laid on a spread which concluded with ice cream all round, and Ms. Monroe, the Captain and Lady Di gave me a new garden sprinkler, ideal for watering the daylilies I bought yesterday at the Lutheran church sale. It is good to be 54.

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Writin’ Dirty

I am pretty sure I have a peptic ulcer. Before you start with the lip pursing and teeth sucking and head shaking, I wish to stress that this is not a complaint brought on by stress; nor is it sparked by excess of any kind. The peptic ulcer, a kind of boil or black hole in the stomach lining, is caused by common or garden germs, such as those found on unwashed hands or undercooked poultry. The complaint can also be caused by kissing and so I am going to claim that my canker is the unfortunate after effect of an intense saliva exchange with a red hot lover who forgot his toothbrush. I don’t intend to rush to the doctor. I am pretty sure a stomach lining, like a curtain lining, a dress lining or a brake lining can last quite a long while before it gives out completely. I wouldn’t wish to effect repairs before I and my paramour are completely done ;) and besides I have a busy week or two at work.  If I should be swapping Pepe for the Pepto Bismol, I am sure you will write.

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I don’t got milk

I have failed the online Irish test set by Buzzfeed. I can’t sing the anthem, I don’t speak Gaelic and, perhaps most damning of all, I don’t drink tea. It is the milk that puts me off.

mrs doyleI find milk repulsive. In Ireland it is rare to be offered tea without it. My dislike of  dairy product prompted me to give up tea-drinking at around age 16, about the same time I stopped going to church. In Belfast, the two decisions were seen as equally shocking. Nearly forty years on, my sister still offers me a cup of tea every time she sees me and when I decline it wounds her. She keens by the kettle like Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle “Ah go on, y’will, y’will, y’will. ” I won’t.

If there is one thing I like less than cold milk, it is hot milk:the smell of it when it scalds thevick pan. The yellow skin slime. The sickly cinnamon scent redolent of a 1960s sanatorium, so much less appealing than the still-welcome whiff of Vick, a packet of Tunes, or a newly filled hot water bottle, the other smells of childhood convalescence.

Imagine my horror on a visit this week to the Indian Embassy in Washington DC, when I was urged several times to drink tea from an urn: tea already mixed with warmed milk.  I could feel bile rising in my throat like boiling milk in a cheap aluminum pan. I poured a cupful. “Add sugar” my tormentors said. I had to spoon and stir.

To my astonishment, the drink was delicious. Assam tea, boiling water, the dreaded warmed full-fat and the addition of cardamom and a little sugar. If cardamom had been a condiment in Belfast during the Troubles I could have been a chai drinker since childhood. I am now making up for lost time, enabled by two large bags of black tea straight from the padi fields of North East India, a gift from one of my new acquaintances. I have raided the curry cupboard for the cardamom.

In the next few days, I will be toasting in Chai  to celebrate my friend Juliet’s film. The Hundred Foot Journey is the story of an Indian chef and his French mentor. The fragrant Helen Mirren stars but early reviews suggest that the aroma of Indian spice steals many of the scenes. Good luck to producer Juliet Blake on the red carpet and at the box office. You can find me at the opening of the tea caddy.

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Where am I? Who am I?

My son has embraced a new Facebook trend and turns out to have a talent for it. In the last week, he has posted:

I am so DC I remember dat if u had 3 buckets and 2 sticks u had a party

I am so DC I remember using the [bus] transfer for 6–pass it back or out the window

I am so DC I remember da [dude] in the firehat use to walk up and down with his radio

I actually remember dat dude myself. He was tall and skinny and frenetic and usually wore only a wifebeater and some skinny sort of long lycra shorts. In my memory, he was often on roller blades but since Hansel didn’t mention those, perhaps I made them up. The dude used to carry his boom box on his shoulder and race along the streets of the city, blaring his beats. Haven’t seen him for years, and his story probably didn’t end well.

Hansel is DC through and through and has often been forced to point out what a misfit I am in the city of his birth. He is right.

 

I am so not DC I eat fried chicken with a knife and fork.

I am so not DC I have never eaten at Ben’s Chili Bowl

I am so not DC I would never think of playing jump rope with a telephone cord

I am so not DC I have never run through a fire hydrant fountain on a hot summer day

I am so not DC that if I was homeless I wouldn’t have the sense to panhandle by a steam vent in winter

I am so not DC I have never stood in line to pay respects to a dead person in the Capitol

I am so not DC I never used a coupon at Hecht’s.

Belfast now, that’s another matter. I can do Belfast.

I am so Belfast I got served in the Bot when I was 14

I am so Belfast, I remember when Pottinger’s Entry smelled of pee

I am so Belfast, I bought all my books from Gardner’s or Mullen’s and had never heard of Waterstones or Borders

I am so Belfast, I remember the layout of Robinson and Cleaver and Anderson and McCauley

I am so Belfast my brother wanted me to click with one of the Stiff Little Fingers so he could get free concert tickets

I am so Belfast I used to be a wee doll

I am so Belfast my hands still smell of rust from the birlie roundabout at Lady Dixon Park

I have more. I have so many more.

Posted in About the Blarney Crone, Books, Crone in America, Crone in the Nation's capital, Culture with the Crone, family, Gangsta Hansel & Ghetto Gretel, Humor, Tales of a Belfast girlhood, The Traveling Crone, You can take the Crone out of Ireland | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Nominated for Blog Awards Ireland, 2014

The Blarney Crone has made it to the long list in the Diaspora and Humor categories for Blog Awards Ireland, 2014. Thanks to all who voted.

Unfortunately, public polling is now ended and so I cannot urge you to exercise your franchise and vote early and often.

I do note however that the competition’s organizers are seeking additional judges. You can apply for this role here.  I know you will do the right thing.

blog awards ireland

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Hot enough to set alarm bells ringing

The smoke alarms went off at 1am, waking me and probably the whole of Itchy Ankle. I tumbled out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen where I stood naked on a kitchen chair to rip the alarm from the ceiling. I dragged the chair into the hall and decapitated that alarm too.

I checked the stove for a forgotten pot on a burning ring. Nothing.  No haze in the air, and no smell of smoke. I checked the trash can to see if anything was smoldering. All clear. I looked outside in case arsonists had attacked the garden shed. All quiet. The garden is a blaze of color. Could that be the problem? Apparently not.

Then I remembered. The acupuncturist said my Fire was low this week. It’s the element that makes us exuberant, sparkling and enthusiastic. The man with the needles found my Fire flickering and dim on Tuesday and treated it along with my bad knees.  Now my flame is burning bright. I am on fire. I am hot enough to set off alarms.

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This week by the water

I am like a mother who can’t limit the number of darling baby pictures she will post on Facebook. I am as bad as the crazy cat lady who provides minute by minute updates on the lives of Squiffy and Bitters and Floss. I am a day lily bore. The spoils of my spending in the Lutheran church parking lot last fall are now in bloom and I love them. Each morning, I can be seen in my shift and no shoes, taking photos in my flowerbeds. Each lily lasts only one day and no two are alike. All must be worshiped and adored.

Ms. Monroe has been to Pennsylvania and picked up a new Maine Coon kitten, the newest incomer to Itchy Ankle.

Following weeks of worry, Peggoty has good news about her small grandson. After long hours in waiting rooms, MRI machines and hospital gowns, he is back home and healthy. Phew.

I toured the Nation’s capital on a Segway, defying my own steadfast conviction that the tour organizers would take one look at me and suggest I stay back, unfit to ride.  I whizzed through the FDR memorial on wheels and took a turn or two past the Jefferson memorial without mowing down a tourist or clipping a kerb.  91 people liked the picture I posted on Facebook, astonished to learn that I could balance, navigate small spaces, and stay upright for three hours.  I think my time behind the handlebars has inspired new hope that I may be able to function adequately on two feet, and in the great outdoors.

Ms. Monroe and I took the late afternoon air in her Boston Whaler, dawdling in backwaters with the ospreys and heron. Tomorrow there is banana walnut bread and rhubarb for breakfast and the promise of new bursts of color to enliven the day.

 

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Family Frailty

tonyMy son and I have a lot in common, once you get past genetic makeup, skin color, gender, sporting prowess, and taste in music. Like me, he is not entirely honest with himself or others; is not inclined to stick around and sort things out when he has messed up; and can be stubborn and imperious when shamed. Trust is not our strong suit. We are both funny and charming and risk-taking and gregarious. We often go too far with fun, hurting ourselves and others in the process. I am good with children, and he is even better.  This is helpful as he is now a single father with a 10 month old daughter.

I haven’t seen much of my son in the last two years–his choice, not mine. In the pastSAM_0798 couple of weeks we have met a couple of times and it is good to be back in touch. He is clever with words and, like me, enjoys picking just the right one. His ability is impressive because he relies on context and deduction to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words–his uncertain spelling makes dictionary diving very difficult. He stores new finds in his memory and relishes the chance to deploy them. Someone was correctly described as nonchalant this week. I know I have written the word before, but I am not sure I have ever said it out loud.

On the face of it, the middle-aged, overweight, white woman (dressed in office clothes) and the young black man (wife-beater, torn jeans, giant tennis shoes, and ever-visible boxers) eating french fries together outside an urban Checkers look like a mismatch, but our lives have turned in surprisingly similar circles.  Hansel is now raising his daughter alone. I was raised by my father alone. We both lost our mothers when we were children and have found it too hard to leave that pain behind. My dearest wish for him is that he gets to raise his child to adulthood, something our own mothers were denied.

Sitting at a hot concrete table outside a strip mall burger bar we sucked down exhaust fumes with our milkshakes. “Where are the big words coming from? ” I said. “I am reading a bit” said Hansel “and trying to write some stories. Just my thoughts about things”.

“Keep at it” I said, just as my father always said to me. “It’s comforting isn’t it? It keeps you company”

He nodded and picked up the baby’s carrier seat, hoisting her into the back of my car

“We should write a book” I said. “I can write about my father and you can write about your daughter”.

“That would be a hell of a story” he said. We both know we don’t have the staying power.

liz pictures 173

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